Thank you for having me this morning. Anne was really supportive in setting this up, though I was hoping for more of “do this and definitely don’t do this” which is the guidance I have received when speaking in some places. What I got was, “What do you need from us? We certainly look forward to Sunday.” If that is not indicative of the spirit of RiverCross, I don’t know what is!
Family Promise prevents and ends homelessness for families by engaging faith-based congregations, volunteers and donors. We are calculated in how we say our mission. They are not “homeless families”- they are experiencing homelessness. They are so much more than their current circumstances, as we all are. They are families with children. We are the only provider of shelter that keeps families together; we do not split dads from the family and we will serve all ages of children. Last year alone, we served the same amount of couples as we did single moms. The families we help are temporarily homeless, as all families have had stability before in their lives; they became homeless. Our parents have owned homes, rented apartments, had employment, and may even have a college education. We talk about the faith community, volunteers and donors as much as the families because it is YOU who make it happen. And…as we true transformational relationships, the line between who is “served” and who is “helping” is truly blurred.
Today is the Third Sunday after Pentecost. Pentecost Sunday is a celebration of the church, the community and most certainly the Holy Spirit. It is the day that marks when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples of Jesus. I love what one professor of New Testament said about Pentecost, “Sunday’s Pentecost observances are more than a celebration of the past. They are not merely an end to Easter or a chance to launch summer programming…Pentecost is an invitation to dream. For when a community of faith quits dreaming, it has little to offer either its members or the wider world. Like any good dream, these dreams involve adopting a new perspective on what’s possible, rousing our creativity to free us from conventional expectations. Maybe I can find freedom from what binds me. Maybe there can be justice. Maybe I can make a difference. Maybe a person’s value isn’t determined by their income. Maybe the future of our society or our planet is not yet determined. Maybe God is here with me, even if I am currently struggling…” Family Promise is this community of dreamers, a community of congregations, volunteers and families all dreaming and growing in faith, hope, and love.
Pentecost is a time of beginning and transformation. The few weeks that a family is in Family Promise is all about transformation. What a privilege that we can all bear witness to this and provide support and prayer during their time of need! Our families come to us with pieces of their former life and dreams of what they still hope. The families lay these pieces, these burdens before Family Promise- lapsed professional licenses, expired vehicle tags, gaps in education and employment, clothing needs, medical needs and support for their children. The chapter of struggle begins to end. As a fellowship, we believe in their abilities and we can share our hope and faith with them. Not only is it that we believe, it is that we know God believes in them and we are his ambassadors and can manifest this for the families we serve.
Even if they do not have hope or faith, we do. If they cannot believe in their own abilities or see the light at the end of the tunnel, we can. We can invite them to dream and we can dream with them. It has been said the only thing we can truly transmit between each other is hope- not even love and related emotions. We can express love, we can express our gratitude, but we can actually share hope.
I want to share words from a recent graduate. This mom who moved out recently to a three bedroom house with her children. She now gives back by serving on our marketing committee. When I went to visit her in her home recently, I learned that her oldest daughter was just accepted into University of Delaware! What a beautiful moment to share with the family! And to think, other shelter programs would have missed out on this because this daughter was over 18 so would not have been allowed to join the program…
In Jen’s words, “Thank you for bringing my children and me in, yes in a time when we had nothing and nowhere to go. You gave us some place safe. In essence saved us. I had never been at such a low point in my life ever. The reminder that the situation I was in was not who I was but just a snapshot in life struck a chord with me. It is something that I repeated to myself multiple times through each and every day until I broke down. I hit rock bottom. I was homeless. I had lost all of my jobs, my relationship with my daughter, my faith and most importantly my hope. I felt helpless and hopeless… I wanted to run but Family Promise stopped me.
I was told me that sometimes a breakdown and a breakthrough looked very similar. I was asked to give Family Promise a chance…to let the volunteers be those flashlights in that very deep dark pit I was in. You saw me as a person.
I was brought me face to face with the fact that I had lost faith and I am eternally thankful for that. I questioned my beliefs, my spirituality… my faith and my lack of hope. I started talking to people at the churches about their faith… how they were able to have so much faith. Family Promise was the catalyst in my search for faith. I was beginning to be freed. Thank you. Thank you for re-instilling in me the confidence in myself that I had lost. I will forever be thankful for all that you have done”
How amazing it is to be part of these transformations! Together over 80% of our families go on to achieve housing stability in less than sixty days. Stop and think about someone who is homeless… Who do you picture? Do you picture Jen who came to Family Promise navigating three part-time jobs? Do you picture Ariana who just graduated from Kindergarten? Do you picture Evelyn and Edwin who celebrated their 18th wedding anniversary this past November? Someone who is homeless might not conjure up single dads like DaJuan or Travis or smart, sophisticated teenagers like Alliyah and Salar. Our success stories are only possible because congregations like RiverCross to open their doors and their hearts, offer financial gifts, contribute time as a mentor, or donate needed items.
One of my favorite quotes is, “A burden shared is cut in half and a joy shared is doubled”. This is the foundation of Family Promise and we know from Galatians, “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). By humbling ourselves before God, being gentle and bearing the burden of our neighbors, we are providing real dedication to fellowship and serving as the hands and feet of Christ. Romans and Corinthians talk about being members of the Body of Christ and thus we are members of one another. This is truly the spirit of fellowship. Through these relationships, we are provided the reassurance that we belong and that we matter. Is that not what we all crave and need? Family Promise intentionally provides these opportunities for all of us; volunteers and families experiencing homelessness literally and metaphorically break bread together. Through these experiences, we build community, internal congregations that participate with hosting, with other faith communities and across demographic lines as well. Volunteers are reminded they matter and have a direct way to ending homelessness in our own community. The guest families are reassured that they too matter and God and the community has not cast them aside. Not only to we ease the burdens of each other, but we can share in the joys: a birthday, a new job, moving out to their own home, a great report card. These celebrations provide hope and encourage us all to maybe, just maybe dream a little more.
If you have not been involved directly with Family Promise, you may be wondering, what exactly does this look like? Local congregations to host the families three to four times a year on a rotational basis directly in their houses of worship. But what does it really look like? It looks like a Rabbi reading Harry Potter to children (and their parents!) on a school night, sound effects, accents and all. It looks like pastors and volunteers driving a van at really early hours to get the families back to the Day Center for showers, laundry and the start of their day. It looks like laughter, good food and what probably happens at your own house at any typical evening: homework, relaxing, talking, sleeping.
The Family Promise experience looks like the volunteer who brought her son to volunteer one night when her congregation was providing the dinner for the families. She appropriately prepared her son, explaining that they would be meeting some homeless children and he could play with them for a few hours. Everyone ate, he played and a good time was had by all. As they were putting on their coats to leave, he asked his mom, “this was fun, but when do we get to meet the homeless children?” He did not even know what had transpired. How wonderful to learn at such a young age the line between “us” and “them” is arbitrarily drawn!
It also looks like volunteers coordinating a trip to take families to the Delaware Children’s Museum. It is a graduate mom recounting the warmth and love she felt when meetings volunteers. This was the first time ever in this sort of situation. She knew she was not alone and that she mattered. Family Promise is single dads who have no other option in our community. It is couples who may have been married longer than you, kids who are on honor roll and play sports. Family Promise is a volunteer saying, “I get more out of this ministry than the families do”. It is a reminder that “God is good, all the time”.
I was reading an article from the New York Times the other day. The title caught my attention, “Want to be happy? Mow the lawn.” Here is one excerpt from the article: “I’ve grown suspicious of the inspirational. It’s overrated. I suspect duty — that half-forgotten word — may be more related to happiness than we think. Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis.” At this point in the article, I had strong yet mixed emotions. I have always felt as though a good day’s work is more rewarding than an “Unearned” day-off. However, suspicious of the inspirational? That is a bold statement. I see miracles every day. The backdrop to Family Promise is bleak, often depressing, and sometimes borders on disturbing. The odds are exceptionally stacked against us: low minimum wage, lack of affordable housing, expensive childcare, costly health insurance, the list goes on. There are enough vacant homes in America for every homeless person to have six. Not all support housing and food as a basic, God-given right. We should not be effective but we are and we continue to bless and be blessed.
Perhaps the inspirational- that which is divine intervention- and duty, daily tasks, are not mutually exclusive. Mark, chapter 4, 26-34 says, “He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Perhaps it is our duty to expect the inspirational, all the while, toiling and planting the mustard seed in our own lives and in the lives of others. We do the footwork, creating meaning and purpose for all in the fellowship, yet turning over the outcome to God and expecting nothing short of miracles.
One quick story and I will end. I recently picked up one of our guest dads and his 2yr old little boy and brought him back to the congregation that was hosting. He was moving out that weekend. We were in the parking lot, but the conversation changed from saying goodnight to him becoming very emotional, as he reflected on his Family Promise experience. Here is this grown man sitting in the backseat of my car, with his adorable sleeping boy, crying, as he pointed to the church saying “those people are so nice- they are just full of love- I have never really experienced that”. He had fear and overwhelm about moving into his own place, but he had peace as well, when he thought about the partnership that had forged over his time in our network. This not only reflected positively on the hosting church but on Family Promise as a whole and left him with the gentle reminder of God’s grace. Never underestimate the power you have to participate in someone else’s new beginning and their ability to dream. You can bring them closer to God’s love.